How does it feel to run a film distribution company specializing in artistic documentaries? What are the challenges at a time when consumers have more choices than ever before for watching movies?
On the eve of the Oscars, Elizabeth Sheldon, President and CEO of Juno Movies, a private company based in Princeton, New Jersey, told me about the joys and challenges of thriving in a competitive market for films.
Bruce weinstein: What does a film distributor do?
Elizabeth sheldon: Film distribution is akin to publishing in that producers and directors create intellectual property and then seek to publish it as widely as possible. For cinema there are many different platforms including festivals, movie theaters, video on demand streaming like Netflix or HBO Max, TV, TV on demand, education and DVD.
The objective of a distributor is to broadcast a film as widely as possible to generate the largest possible audience and the maximum amount of income. Another analogy is that it’s like running an orphanage for beloved children who need more attention and resources than beloved parents can provide.
Weinstein: What are Juno’s most successful films?
Sheldon: There are different ways of judging the success of a film. that of Rob Garver What she said: The art of Pauline Kael, [about the late New Yorker film critic], will be our best performer from 2019, mainly because it will play in 30 to 50 markets by the time we’re done.
Jedd and Todd wider‘s God knows where i am was definitely a home run. We won a Emmy for this in the TV Documentaries and News section, and it has aired on PBS and Netflix. In terms of audience impact, it probably had the widest reach due to the channels we allowed it to.
The theatrical release is a small piece in the overall landscape. When we acquire a film, there are different ways of measuring success. Maximum powers’ Don’t be nice, about the Bowery Slam Poetry Team, performed really well on the festival circuit and we qualified for an Oscar. Box office receipts are just one marker among many.
Weinstein: Was there a movie you bought that you strongly believed would be a hit in theaters, but it wasn’t?
Sheldon: We recovered a zombie movie, that of Caroline Hellsgard For all time, for which I had high hopes. Manhola Dargis gave him a rave review in The New York Times. The Guardian said it was one of the 10 best zombie movies ever made. He did not find an audience … He is ahead of his time.
Weinstein: Speaking of Times, the Arts section recently had a item on how the #MeToo movement is changing the way Hollywood does business. Have you ever felt like you were missing out on an opportunity because of your gender?
Sheldon: There have been both causal and not-so-subtle ways that men have reminded me of âmy placeâ in and outside an organization.
Weinstein: How? ‘Or’ What?
Sheldon: In my first job after graduation at Princeton, I reported to an older traditional man. He was sympathetic and fatherly. He invited me to a meeting with two male film producers and after being introduced I was asked to go get coffee for the guests.
I said no. “It was an uncomfortable moment and in my mind I kept saying,” You are a Fulbright scholar and a Princeton graduate. You went to Mills College. You were not hired to serve the coffee.
Maybe I chose the right to say “no” to Mills, an all-female college where I learned not to assume that a man would take on the role of leader, or maybe my dad, who was. by far an avant-garde feminist.
Weinstein: So, what happened?
SheldonLuckily, my boss’s secretary, who was much more seasoned and caring than me, stepped in and asked who wanted theirs black and if anyone cared about the sugar.
It was the same secretary who on my second week on the job invited me to lunch and informed me that I would never be successful in this business because I had a young child. It’s not just men who bring their personal beliefs about what women can and can’t do in the office.
Weinstein: I hear that a lot.
Sheldon: Other times during my professional career, I have been repeatedly asked not to tell anyone that I have been to Princeton or that I was a Fulbright fellow among my colleagues or in public or that I have been elected one of the 50 most powerful people in documentary cinema. I was not to âtip the boatâ.
Weinstein: How did these experiences affect you?
Sheldon: Finally, I realized that I am a rower and that the rowers wake up in the morning to rock the boat.
It was then that I accepted that some cultures could not be changed and that I would only die of frustration if I sought to be the catalyst. I moved on. It was easier than waging a war I wouldn’t have won.
Weinstein: What are some of the implications for women in other companies?
Sheldon: In negotiations, women can be seen as not very serious business people. A producer accidentally shared a note her co-producer wrote to her about my proposal, where he repeatedly called me âthe girlâ. Clearly, no one is going to give a “girl” the distribution rights to a movie. I was in my 40s and I was COO.
I think all women make choices as they go through their lives about the battles we fight and those we ignore, while keeping our self-esteem intact.
Weinstein: Is our culture changing for the better, in your opinion?
Sheldon: All of my male peers who run distribution companies have investors. Until women entrepreneurs have equal access to capital, the world of cinema will not change. Film culture will not change until women control the pipeline and green light films.
If there were women on the business side who decided which movies are produced, shown at major film festivals, and released, I guess we would have more movies that appeal to both women and men, assuming that men are broad-minded enough to watch films that do not only deal with the glory of conquest, whether military, economic or sexual.
In short, there would be more people like Greta Gerwig and Kelly reichardt and maybe a box office rebound. Black Panther comes to mind what happens when a new voice breathes life into an old genre.
I want Juno Films to be a catalyst for this cultural change.